The London bombs, five years on: a digest

The coordinated bomb-attacks on London’s transport network on 7 July 2005 (“7/7”) left dozens dead and hundreds wounded, and marked the lives of millions in the city and beyond. The political, intellectual and security issues raised by the event were extensively discussed on openDemocracy in the ensuing months. A retrospect of unforgettable days, by David Hayes.

(This article was first published on 7 July 2010)

David Hayes
7 July 2011

What was always half-expected still came as a visceral shock. A series of explosions on three underground trains and a double-decker bus during London’s morning rush-hour on 7 July 2005 left fifty-two people dead (as well as the four attackers responsible) and injured 800. Many wounds, physical and mental, from bereavement to survivors’ guilt, endure.

It was the first major terrorist attack in the city since the Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombs of 1990-96, in what was in retrospect the closing phase of the thirty-year “troubles” (though an attempted recurrence by dissident republican groups cannot be ruled out). It was also far more bloody than any of the dozen attacks of that period, since the perpetrators’ explicit aim was to kill as many civilians as possible within the confined space of a train-carriage or bus-deck rather than (as per the IRA’s later strategy) to inflict “economic damage”.

The London bombs also came as part of a brutal sequence which made it but the latest city to be targeted in the first half of the 2000s by militant jihadists. The locations of comparable earlier attacks had included (among others) New York (11 September 2001), Bali (12 October 2002), Moscow (23 October 2002), Mombasa (28 November 2002), Tel Aviv (5 January 2003), Casablanca (16 May 2003), Mumbai (25 August 2003), Istanbul (15 and 20 November 2003), and Quetta, Baghdad and Karbala (2 March 2004), and Madrid (11 March 2004). Indeed, what had happened in Madrid on “11-M” - coordinated bombs that exploded on commuter-trains approaching the city’s Atocha railway-station, killing 191 people and injuring 1,900 - seemed in its tactics, style, and (it quickly transpired) authorship the nearest reference-point for the London operation.

The four young men responsible for the London bombings were British citizens of Pakistani and (one case) Jamaican origin acting in the name of the jihadist ideology of al-Qaida. Three came from Yorkshire, in northern England, and one from a town north of London. Two members of the cell - including its leader, Mohammed Sidique Khan - were subsequently seen on videotape justifying their actions by reference to the Islamic faith, the oppression of Muslims worldwide (including in Iraq, Chechnya and Afghanistan), and the responsibility of western civilians in face of the culpability of their governments.

The fact that the mass-murder in London had been committed by “homegrown” terrorists (though they may have had access to al-Qaida’s transnational network) was of particular concern to the security-services. This was reinforced by the attempted repeat-attacks in London of 21 July, committed by four young men of Somali, Ethiopian and Eritrean origin (two of whom were naturalised British citizens). A day after these - which failed due to inadequate bomb-materials - armed-police shot dead an innocent young Brazilian man, Jean-Charles de Menezes, inside a train at Stockwell underground station, in the false belief that he was carrying an explosive device.

The most searching independent investigation to date into the London attacks was conducted by the British parliament’s intelligence-and-security committee (ISC), which reported in May 2006. But it still leaves many questions unanswered about the circumstances of the bombings, the connections of the perpetrators, and the role of the intelligence services. Some of these may be clarified by the coroner's inquests into the deaths on 7/7, now scheduled to take place in autumn 2010.

A resource for understanding

openDemocracy was born in 2000-01 of an effort to make sense of the 21st-century world: its global character, its irreducible local complexities, its clashes of ideology, its truths and lies. When an immediate crisis hits, the instinct is to try to understand it both as an integral, for-itself moment and in terms of the accumulating awareness of the wider, evolving reality it belongs to.

In practice this means commissioning, editing and publishing material from people who have accurate, relevant information and something meaningful to say: scholars, journalists and other observers whose analysis or reportage can add depth and go inside the subject while maintaining cool, independent judgment. (For a brief outline of the thinking behind this approach, see “Authority, credibility and openDemocracy”, 13 June 2008).

There are by now, after more than nine years of life as a live website, many examples in relation to the issues raised by the London bombs alone: global security, the “war on terror”, transnational jihadism, multiculturalism and its critics, and the evolution of Muslim political identities. 

Here are ten clusters of relevant material of this kind, comprising 103 articles from 2001-10. The list concludes with openDemocracy’s coverage of 7/7 and its wider dimensions.

* Paul Rogers’s weekly column, which began on 23 September 2001 and continues to track the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military-political strategy of the United States, climate change and global inequality, and the ingredients of “sustainable security” in the 21st century

The columns number 463 at the time of writing. They include:

After Bali, the need to understand” (15 October 2002)

Britain: terror and security” (2 May 2007)

New war, old war” (27 July 2005)

London’s intelligence failure” (17 May 2006)

The war on terror: past, present, future” (23 August 2006)

London without a map” (4 October 2006)

Britain's war: evasion and reality” (16 November 2006)

What went wrong?” (20 December 2007) 

A tale of two futures” (1 May 2008)

The lessons of Mumbai” (1 December 2008)

After war, security” (10 December 2009)

* After 9/11 - the articles include:

Todd Gitlin, “Is this our fate?” (11 September 2001)

Maruf Khwaja, “The suicide of fundamentalism” (13 September 2001)

Malise Ruthven, “’Born-again’ Muslims: cultural schizophrenia” (27 September 2001)

Murat Belge, “Radical Islam and 9/11: inside the fundamentalist mind” (3 October 2001)

Omar al-Qattan, “Disneyland Islam” (17 October 2001)

* The hijab law in France and its reverberations - the articles include:

Dave Belden, “Headscarves and freedom” (30 January 2004) 

Johannes Willms, “France unveiled: making Muslims into citizens?” (26 February 2004)

Patrick Weil, “A nation in diversity: France, Muslims and the headscarf” (25 March 2004)

Patrice de Beer, “France's other worlds: burqa and abyss” (3 March 2010)

Callum Brown, "'Best not to take it too far': how the British cut religion down to size" (8 March 2006)

Tina Beattie, "Veiling the issues: a distractive debate" (24 October 2006)

Olivier Roy, "Secularism confronts Islam" (25 October 2007)

* The Madrid bombs of March 2004 - the articles include:

Anthony Barnett, “Living through terrorism” (12 March 2004)

Richard Torné, “Spain's 3/11: democracy after atrocity” (12 March 2004)

Paul Rogers, “The Madrid bombings: the 'war on terror' comes to Europe” (15 March 2004)

Mary Kaldor, “First lessons from Spain” (15 March 2004) 

Ivan Briscoe, "A victory for Spain, not al-Qaida" (18 March 2004)

Terrorism, democracy and Muslims after the Madrid bombs” - a symposium (24 March 2004)

Karin von Hippel, “Five steps for defeating terrorism” (6 January 2005)
Faisal Devji, “Spectral brothers: al-Qaida's world wide web"(19 August 2005)

Mariano Aguirre, "Spain's 11-M and the right's revenge" (10 March 2006)

Fred Halliday, “Justice in Madrid: the ‘11-M’ verdict” (5 November 2007)

* The Danish cartoon row of 2005-06 - the articles include:

Neal Ascherson, "A carnival of stupidity" (6 February 2006)

"Muslims and Europe: a cartoon confrontation" - a symposium (6 February 2006) 

Fred Halliday, “Blasphemy and power” (13 February 2006)

Faisal Devji, “Back to the future: the cartoons, liberalism, and global Islam" (12 April 2006)

Doug Ireland, "The right to caricature God…and his prophets" (7 February 2006)

Ehsan Masood, “A post-Satanic journey” (7 February 2006)

Tariq Modood, "The liberal dilemma: integration or vilification?" (8 February 2006)

Sarah Lindon, "Words on images: the cartoon controversy" (10 February 2006)

S Sayyid, "Old Europe, New World" (15 February 2006)

Daphna Vardi, “Jews and cartoons: why the connection?” (20 February 2006)

Saskia Sassen, "Free speech in the frontier-zone" (20 February 2006)

Kalypso Nikolaidis, “Europe and beyond: struggles for recognition” (21 February 2006)

Farhang Jahanpour, "Cartoons, caricatures, and civilisation" (23 February 2006)

Ulf Hedetoft, "Denmark's cartoon blowback" (1 March 2006)

Hazem Saghieh, “The cartoon jihad” (3 March 2006) 

Birgitta Steene, “The Swedish cartoon: art as provocation” (10 September 2007)

* Pope Benedict XVI’s address at Regensburg in September 2006 - the articles include:

Patricia Crone, "What do we actually know about Mohammed?" (31 August 2006)

Roger Scruton, "The great hole of history" (10 September 2006)

Tina Beattie, “Pope Benedict XVI and Islam: beyond words” (17 September 2006)

Ehsan Masood, “Pope Benedict XVI: science is the real target” (18 September 2006)

Michael Walsh, “The Regensburg address: reason amid certainty” (19 September 2006)

Faisal Devji, “Between Pope and Prophet” (25 September 2006)

Michael Walsh, “The Pope and the Patriarch” (4 December 2006)

Fred Halliday, “The end of the Vatican” (5 December 2006)

Faisal Devji, “Muslim liberals: epistles of moderation” (18 October 2007)

* Multiculturalism - the articles include:

Sami Zubaida, “Islam, religion and ideology” (14 February 2007)

KA Dilday,"Sister in spirit: Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel" (6 March 2007)

Ehsan Masood, “Muslims and multiculturalism: lessons from Canada” (7 March 2007)

Tariq Modood: "Multiculturalism, citizenship and national identity" (17 May 2007)

Yahya Birt, "Multiculturalism and the discontents of globalisation"
(25 May 2007)

Nira Wickramasinghe, "Multiculturalism: a view from Sri Lanka"
(29 May 2007)

Paul Kelly, "Multiculturalism and 7/7: neither problem nor solution" (19 October 2005)

Abdul-Rehman Malik, "Beyond formula: a civic multiculturalism" (31 May 2007)

Sami Zubaida, “The many faces of multiculturalism” (5 June 2007)

* The Archbishop of Canterbury's lecture in February 2008 - the articles include:

Tina Beattie, “Rowan Williams and sharia law” (12 February 2008)

Theo Hobson, “Rowan Williams: sharia furore, Anglican future” (13 February 2008)

Roger Scruton, "Islamic law in a secular world" (14 February 2008)

Tariq Modood, “Multicultural citizenship and the anti-sharia storm” (14 February 2008)

Sami Zubaida, “Sharia: practice of faith, politics of modernity” (22 February 2008)

* Fred Halliday’s monthly column, which began in March 2004 and (as part of a wider focus on many aspects of international politics) reflected on the Madrid trials, the idea of the umma, terrorism, and Afghanistan

The columns, eight-one by the time of Fred Halliday’s untimely death on 26 April 2010, include:

Terrorism in historical perspective” (21 April 2004)

The crisis of universalism: America and radical Islam after 9/11” (15 September 2004)

Terrorism and world politics: conditions and prospects” (18 January 2005)

A transnational umma: reality or myth?” (6 October 2005)

The Left and the Jihad” (7 September 2006)

"Sunni, Shi'a and the 'Trotskyists of Islam'" (9 February 2007)

Islam and Europe: a debate in Amsterdam” (2 October 2007)

Islam, law and finance: the elusive divine” (12 February 2008)

After London

In the two months after the London bombs, openDemocracy published thirty-six articles on the event, and its ramifications in terms both of policy and ideas. In the years since we have produced more. They include:

Isabel Hilton, “Letter from wounded London” (7 July) - our then editor writes an immediate, heartfelt and thoughtful response:

“London is a wounded city today. Other attacks may follow. How should we, democratic citizens, respond? Terror alone cannot destroy democracy, but it can provoke us to do so. It is for the police to find the perpetrators, it is for the citizen to insist that the state must not do what terror cannot, it is for government – however provoked – to honour and defend our liberties.”

Mary Kaldor, “London lives” (7 July 2005)

Paul Rogers, “The London bombs in the wider war” (8 July 2005)

Mohammed Sajid, "The gap between us: British Muslims and 7/7"
(18 July 2005)

Max Farrar, “Leeds footsoldiers and London bombs” (21 July 2005)

Peter R Neumann, “Madrid, London, and beyond: don't reinvent the wheel” (27 July 2005)

David Hayes, “What kind of country?” (28 July 2005)

Tariq Modood, "Remaking multiculturalism after 7/7" (29 September 2005)

Maruf Khwaja, "Muslims in Britain: generations, experiences, futures"
(2 August 2005)
Sami Zubaida, “The London bombs: Iraq or the 'rage of Islam'?” (2 August 2005)

Gilles Kepel, "Europe's answer to Londonistan" (24 August 2005)

Ehsan Masood, “British Muslims must stop the war” (29 August 2005)

"In search of British Muslim identity: responses to 'Young, Angry, and Muslim'" (28 October 2005) - a symposium 

Ehsan Masood, “Muslim Britain: the end of identity politics?” (2 July 2006)

David Hayes, “The London bombs, one year on” (2 July 2006) - a symposium

Rhiannon Talbot, “Britain's anti-terrorism policy: an eternal cycle” (4 July 2006)

Jan Willem Petersen, “London's security architecture: the end of the sustainable city?” (5 July 2006)

Delwar Hussain, "Bangladeshis in east London: from secular politics to Islam" (6 July 2006)

Ehsan Masood, "British Muslims: ends and beginnings" (31 October 2006)

Mukul Devichand, “Telling Muslim tales” (29 December 2006)

Patricia Crone, “'Jihad': idea and history” (30 April 2007)

Yahya Birt, “British Muslims and the Muslim Council of Britain: the next decade” (7 July 2008)

Delwar Hussain, “An east London election: politics and coercion” (14 May 2010)

A city's scar

The bombs that hit London on 7 July 2005 destroyed lives and crushed limbs, but their wider aim of seeding division and hatred among citizens of a multifarious global city was not achieved. Although the pain of loss and trauma persists in many quiet corners - as the moving site of remembrance to the victims in Hyde Park testifies - that failure is also a measure of Londoners' life-affirming humanity in the face of nihilism and darkness.

But London's impressive resilience notwithstanding, the city - and Britain more generally - has been damaged by what happened that day and the processes it set in motion, perhaps in deeper ways than both understand. The refusal of citizens to be intimidated by violence into abandoning their commitment to democracy and civic norms may have kept open the space for the many political and security aspects of what happened on 7/7 to be seriously and comprehensively examined. Five years on is not too early to begin.

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